Too Late to Say I'm Sorry

by Carol Pahl

Part 4

Friday morning

Five men gathered around their usual table, eating by rote rather than hunger. Simple questions received even simpler answers. The pain of the assumed loss showed in their solemn expressions. An early morning telephone call to Larabee's office reported no progress in the investigation.

"I find it inconceivable that the powers that be, would terminate the search without incontestable evidence," Ezra said to no one special.

"Someone isn't doing their job. They're not seeing all the data," Nathan mumbled.

The second phone call of the day interrupted the partially eaten meal. Josiah snagged the small communications tool. He listened to the caller and a scowl moved across his face. "We've already discarded anything that might have some of his hair. Can't. The water reached the four foot level." He pushed the end button and stuffed the phone into his coat pocket.

"They discovered two partial human remains near the site where the charred chassis was discovered. The forensic science unit wants to run more DNA tests on some bones from a fourth body. They identified the other three as the teens who robbed the convenience store. Their mothers provided the proof. They can't use dental records because there is no skull."

"What happened to the sample they had of JD's?" Nathan questioned.

"Got contaminated. They assumed we had an unlimited supply of the boy's hair."

"Everything at the loft is contaminated. What about at his desk?" Nathan brainstormed for sources of samples that they could guarantee belonged only to the missing agent.

"They already searched it. Though he may appear disorganized, his desk was immaculate. Not a single hair, nothing."

Smiling slyly across the table, Vin asked. "Hey, Ez. You up do doin' a little detective work? Go back up there, have another look around?"

Chris glared at the three other men, wondering what trouble the two would find. "You boys are still on the clock. Anything you find will not be permissible in court."

"Won't be any trial, if the gang all died." Vin paused for a moment before looking at the team leader. "Boss, I'd like to take the afternoon off, personal business."

Expecting the request, the leader let the men squirm a little. "Don't think I can approve any time off. We're already short-handed."

"Mr. Larabee, I believe it would be prudent to allow Mr. Tanner and myself to investigate the use of minute weapons of choice by underage felons."

Chris rubbed his temples. Ezra Standish certainly had a way of making brain cells ache. "Go on, but don't expect me to pull your behinds out of the local hoosegow."

-- M - 7 --

Two hours later, Vin and Ezra looked down the ravine where the highway patrol discovered the burned out chassis of Casey's car. Vin's keen eyesight and Ezra's photographic memory made for a brilliant investigating pair. After a few moments, the two men returned to Ezra's vehicle, neither man sharing his thoughts. The undercover agent drove the car slowly up the mountain while Vin watched for the place where the wrecked car originally left the road. Few people used the mountain road during the winter and early spring. No guardrails protected the hairpin turns or sheer drop offs, so the car would leave little physical trace of skidding from the road.

"Stop. I think I found it." Vin jumped from the vehicle before Ezra shifted into park. He jogged back to the spot he'd seen earlier and dropped to his knees to study the broken vegetation. Heavy rains washed away tire tracks, but could not obscure the trail of destruction down the mountainside.
Ezra joined his team member and scanned the entire vista. He slowly turned around in a 360-degree circle, envisioning in his mind, the journey up the mountain. As he looked at the steep drop-off, the sun caught golden flashes across the cut. "Mr. Tanner, look."

The sharpshooter looked up and smiled, "Got a rope?"

As he watched the agile Texan scramble down the steep slope, the southerner hoped the man returned in one peace. He didn't want to face the wrath of Chris Larabee if Vin Tanner didn't remain whole. Waiting for his lanky partner to return, he scribbled detailed notes in the small book he always carried in his coat pocket.

Miss Wells' vehicle failed to negotiate the curve without decelerating. It slammed into the far slope before careening down to the valley floor where it exploded on impact. Torrential precipitation melted the lingering snow cover, flooding the forlorn abyss and transmitted the smoldering chassis and charred corpses to the locale discovered by the local constabulary.

Standish, shading his eyes from the late afternoon sun, searched for his longhaired partner.

The Texan easily scaled the uneven terrain and stood on a small, rocky outcropping. Bits of broken glass and plastic grillwork littered the ground. A couple of stones exhibited scrapes of blue paint. Near one edge, Vin found a single, overturned stone and wondered what jarred it loose.

The drop to the valley floor wouldn't kill a man, but the flash flood, strong enough to carry a small car, would surely drown any person or animal unable to climb to higher ground. Had JD been ejected from the car before it careened down the slope and exploded, only to be swallowed by the surging water?

Not wanting to miss any detail, the young sharpshooter scanned the ground for any evidence that might give a clue as to the missing agent's fate. His eyes returned to the overturned stone. Turning slightly, he noticed the broken twigs of the small bush miraculously clinging to the small shelf six feet below where he stood. The rock outcropping, invisible to the road, disappeared into darkness.

Tanner carefully lowered himself down the sodden soil, not trusting any stone for support. Behind the small bush a faint animal trail, complete with fresh tracks, lead away from the deadly valley. Vin squeezed between the solid granite sentinels and gasped.

Hidden from the rest of the world, the trail disappeared into the thick trees. Even with no foliage on the trees, little sunlight reached the forest floor. An unnatural speck of color caught his eye and he reached under the pile of branches and twigs to slowly extract the butchered remains of a man's athletic shoe. A bloodstained sock stuck out from where it was stuffed in the toe. If this was indeed JD's shoe, how did it come to be buried under a pile of forest rubbish?

"Mr. Tanner! Vin Tanner!" The less than dignified yell reverberated between the walls of the small valley. "The lack of your visual apparition will not bode well with your health if you do not re-emerge straight away."

"Keep your pants on, Ezra. I didn't find JD, but I'm sure he isn't one of them bodies the highway patrol found." Tanner yelled back, suddenly reappearing on the small rock outcropping. "Get ready to tie off the rope when I toss it up to ya."

"I detest repelling and refuse to soil my digits on my cohort's line." Ezra muttered, knowing the Texan couldn't hear his complaint. He grabbed the rope and expertly knotted it to a sturdy tree.

Vin scaled the rock wall and popped up over the ledge. "The Kid didn't die in that wreck." He said, holding up the mutilated shoe. "Found it behind those rocks. No way it could fall back there with the car crashing on this side. It's JD's."

"How do you suggest we locate our missing Cinderfella and return his mangled footwear?"

-- M - 7 --

Buck sat on the steps to his loft bedroom, lost in thought as his fingers unconsciously turned the badge over and over in his hand, his thumb caressing the smooth center insignia while a roar filled his ears. For an entire week he held a glimmer of hope, but today's phone call from the coroner's office extinguished the tiny flame. His young partner, his best friend, JD, was gone forever. Dead. The word held finality. What could be said after a man was declared dead? If the three bodies identified belonged to the brats who kidnapped his friend, the fourth unidentified body must belong to the other passenger that day, his little brother, JD.

Nathan and Josiah quietly sorted and scrubbed the flooded apartment. They hauled most of the ruined furniture to the dumpster with the rest of the soggy trash. The smell of bleach permeated the room, overpowering the fresh spring air invading the rooms.

What little could be salvaged sat in one corner. The health department approved the habitation of the men's apartment but required all foodstuffs and clothing, wet by the contaminated muddy water, destroyed. Their footsteps echoed on the sub-flooring, having removed the carpet earlier.
Josiah looked at their dejected friend on the steps and said quietly. "Bad enough the boy's missing; now we gotta throw out his belongings."

Nathan shook his head, denying the morbid thoughts swirling around the room. "They haven't proved he died in that car. No body means there's still hope."

"Witnesses all said three teens robbed that store. The highway patrol found four, or rather the parts of four bodies, three male, one female."

"Still don't mean the one unidentified is JD, Josiah."

Nodding in agreement, the men returned to their task, hoping their presence in the apartment would offer a buffer to the anger building in the normally gregarious lothario. They knew Buck Wilmington would erupt with volcanic force but they wanted to stay by his side, offering a grounding influence.

The playful music from Buck's denim coat broke the tension. He remained statue like on the steps, ignoring the beckoning of his cell phone. Josiah hung his head in despair. The unknown answers inflicted more harm than the dreaded pronouncement. He looked up at his fellow agent, sitting on the metal steps with a heart so heavily weighed down in grief.

The relationship between Wilmington and Dunne defied explanation. Neither man knew each other before joining the elite ATF team but in the short time they discovered a kinship that filled a void in each other's life. JD found a big brother, a male influence to guide and mold his life. Buck found a family.

Buck stared at the charred remains of JD's badge. Life had been an adventure for his young friend. JD met the job's challenges head on. He never backed down from the dangerous assignments but willingly stood side by side with the more experienced agents. The kid filled a hole in his heart and, for the first time since Chris's family died, Buck Wilmington's guilt abated.

Now that hole ripped open and decimatd Buck's huge heart and left him a hollow shell. He didn't think life without his 'little brother' would be worth living. His fingers twirled the badge as he relived the scene in JD's bedroom one week ago, berating himself for being so crass. JD's interruption was totally accidental; his was cruel and intentional. Now he would never have the chance to receive the boy's forgiveness.

The darkness hovering just out of his line of sight surrounded him, shutting out the late afternoon sunlight. He blinked his eyes a couple of times trying to focus on the insignia but the gloominess grew as his body succumbed to exhaustion.

Nathan saw the slight swaying and leaped to the stairs. He caught his dispondent friend and both men sagged to the floor. Josiah lifted the unconscious man and gently laid him on a clear part of the floor. Nathan scurried to his feet and joined the older man.

"Knew it was bound to happen sometime. Best to let him get some sleep. Hopefully he'll eat something when he wakes up." Nathan covered him with the denim coat, and sighed.

"Ezra called. He and Vin found some evidence up in the mountains, proof that the boy wasn't in the car when it exploded. Rains washed away any trail, though. They're heading back to organize a search team for tomorrow."

Nathan's eyes, large with excitement, asked the next question.

"Just the boy's shoe and a bloody sock." He hung his head in prayer, "Keep him safe Lord. Keep them both safe."


Index | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

I'd love to know what you think. Carol